What happens when a Canadian mining company wants to dig a huge open-pit copper mine on U.S. public land, right where the only jaguar in the U.S. lives? The government agency charged with protecting the animal gives it the thumbs up.
Wait – what?
That’s right. Hudbay Minerals’ Rosemont mine (slated for the scenic Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona’s biologically rich Mountain Empire) is a step closer to breaking ground, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The project encompasses a 9 ½ square mile open-pit mine, which would occupy up to 33% of the territory of the only known jaguar in the U.S., placing it and other endangered and threatened species at risk. Yet in its recent assessment of the project, FWS somehow concluded that the Rosemont Mine would not violate the Endangered Species Act (ESA). With that agency’s approval, the project is free to move forward to the next phase.
An Uncertain Future for El Jefe and our Hopes for U.S. Jaguars
This jaguar — named El Jefe, or Chief, by Arizonan school kids — has been repeatedly photographed during the last two years roaming the mountains where the mine is planned.
In a major understatement, FWS does acknowledge that the mine would likely “harass” El Jefe. Under the ESA, harassment means any actions likely to injure wildlife by significantly disrupting behaviors like feeding or sheltering. It’s easy to see how Rosemont Mine will do just that. The mine would require massive earthmoving equipment, blasting, powerful lights around the clock, and millions of gallons of water siphoned from the area’s streams, ponds, and groundwater. Digging a giant hole in the middle of his territory would force El Jefe to move, which could be dangerous. Big cats often die in strange territory because it’s harder for them to find prey and to avoid people.
If the Service admits that the mine would force El Jefe out of his territory, how can it allow this project to move forward? Strangely enough, the agency simply doesn’t think that he is necessary. The Service’s position is that because there are jaguars in Mexico and Central and South America, El Jefe is superfluous. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
As the only jaguar living in the U.S., El Jefe represents a huge step forward for jaguar recovery in the U.S. Displacing him would be a massive setback, putting yet another roadblock in the way of someday having a healthy population of jaguars right here in the Southwest.
Rosemont Mine is a Critical Hit to Critical Habitat
Just two years ago, the Service determined what areas are “critical habitat” for jaguars — the lands that are essential to the conservation of that species, and that must be protected. The proposed site of the Rosemont Mine is part of that critical habitat, making it even harder to understand how the Service could approve such a project. According to the Service’s own assessment, the mine’s roads, lighting, noise, and other factors could harm as much as 78 square miles of jaguar critical habitat – far beyond the footprint of the mine itself.
The Service’s decision also gives the go ahead to harm other ESA-listed species by diminishing the water supply of those making their last stand in and near the Santa Rita Mountains. That list of creatures includes a number of southwestern icons, like the ocelot, native fishes, northern Sonoran garter snake, Chiricuahua leopard frog, western yellow-billed cuckoo and southwestern willow flycatcher. Studies done for the Service conclude that the mine’s water guzzling would lower the levels in nearby streams, and increase the number of days in which those streams go dry (an impact made even worse by climate change). Even after the mine closes and stops actively draining water from nearby sources, the water remaining in the pit would be poisonous because of acid and heavy metals. And as water evaporates from the pit, it will pull in more from the groundwater, continuing to steal water from local wildlife essentially forever.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Negotiates a Bad Deal for Wildlife
The Service rationalized its approval of this project by accepting the mining company’s offer to take certain measures to lessen the impacts it would have on wildlife. Measures like requiring its vehicles to drive slowly to avoid hitting jaguars or ocelots, or spending $1.25 million on enhancing and managing habitat. In all, the mining company plans to invest approximately $5 million in mitigating the impacts of its mine on wildlife — a drop in the bucket compared to projected after-tax income of $6.9 billion for the life of the mine. Yet this is what the Service agreed to, dropping a number of more effective (and more costly) actions the agency had initially proposed once it became clear the company would not agree to them.
What few mitigation measures survived into the final agreement are flawed. The mining company agreed to purchase and protect habitat on three ranches that together have roughly the same number of acres as the pit. But local conservationists who know these lands well say that the value of the replacement land comes nowhere near to matching what would be lost. Natural seeps and springs would be replaced by artificial ponds, for instance. And the mitigation lands would not replace loss of a major wildlife corridor likely used by jaguar and ocelot.
When done right, mitigation measures can be effective in helping to keep development projects from harming wildlife. But it’s clear that in this case, it simply isn’t being done right. The deal the Service struck with this mining company doesn’t benefit jaguars and other wildlife – it puts them in danger.
This deal may be good enough for the Service, but it isn’t for us. We are working with local groups like Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance to stop mining projects like this one throughout the Mountain Empire. With the support of these allies and concerned wildlife activists like you, we can keep fighting to ensure that El Jefe continues to roam Arizona’s breathtakingly beautiful Mountain Empire.
The Long-awaited Return
With one solitary jaguar back in the U.S., and plans in the works to move its conservation forward, could we soon see a real return of this long-absent native species?